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Chapter 8: It’s All About Them: How To Become More Effective By Being More Focused On People And Behaviours

If you really want to connect and persuade, and turn ideas into action, you have to understand how people think and feel now, and how that drives their behaviours, and then pay close attention to why they should do what you need them to do in the future. Here are 10 steps to a better communication plan.

It was the nightmare that all leaders fear. A much-dreaded overhaul of the company’s IT infrastructure went live and immediately fell over. For a national furniture retail company, selling hundreds of thousands of items every day, this was a catastrophe.

The company not only sold and delivered furniture, but it also manufactured and then assembled furniture on site for its customers.

Customers were purchasing items for every room in their homes, handing over their cash, and expecting in good faith that the furniture would be delivered and fitted within a short space of time. However, as soon as the IT fell over, the company started losing track of stock. Within days it was in chaos and soon that chaos was spreading to customers who were becoming increasingly anxious, and often hugely inconvenienced, by the fact that they were not receiving what they had bought. The company had a massive shortfall in delivering items to customers and it was growing by the day.

Of course, the leadership team rapidly assembled a crisis team, which not only included the IT advisers who had got them into difficulty but now other IT advisers as well. It also included key personnel from across sales, warehousing, distribution, manufacturing, marketing and human resources. The team was working 24 hours a day to find solutions to the problem and to shore up the processes that needed to be carried out if sales were to continue.

I was asked to help the company communicate the problem externally. Immediately, I was ringing alarm bells. When I asked what they were trying to achieve, exactly, the answer was: ‘To inform customers about our problem and minimize reputational damage.’

We assembled a team and we began looking at the various audiences they needed to communicate with. This included customers, employees, MPs, consumer watchdogs, the media, shareholders and other groups. Yes, but which customers? We needed more closely to segment the audience. This broke down into existing, potential and former customers. Existing customers were the ones who had placed orders and were now becoming more and more agitated. Former customers were important as the company needed to retain their loyalty and ensure return visits to the stores. But the key to the problem lay with potential customers. Their actions now could turn their crisis into a disaster from which there would be no return. Can you spot yet what had been bothering me about making an external announcement?

With no more than 16 people in the room we began to look at each of the key groups in turn and examine their situations and attitudes in more detail. Who were we talking about? How did they feel about what was happening? What were they likely to do as a result of how they felt? What would we rather they do? And what would we have to do to provide sufficient incentive to encourage them to supportive behaviours?

For example, we looked at young mothers, who formed a high proportion of the company’s customers. How would a young mother feel, with a baby on her hip, her kitchen ripped out in preparation for a new one, but no replacement kitchen in sight? The answers were obvious to everyone – she would be frustrated, increasingly angry and massively inconvenienced at a stressful time in her life. What would she do? Obviously she would complain directly to the salesman, and from there to the manager, to family and friends, and perhaps even to MPs and the media. She’d tell a lot of people if she remained angry. She would likely also cancel her order.

How would the salespeople in the store feel when this young mother came in for a second or even third time, with still no solution to her problem? What would they do? Again the answer was obvious – they would run and hide, especially as they had no solution to offer. Their job was to earn commission by selling furniture, and every moment they spent trying to deal with an inconsolable customer was not only unpleasant and uncomfortable but also hitting them in their pockets.

And so we went round each of the audiences in turn, looking at every stakeholder and thinking about how they felt and what they were likely to do. We came to potential customers. What would happen if they were to learn that, should they buy something at the store, they would likely not receive their items for months? Again, the answer was obvious. They would go to a competitor instead. This chain of stores received more than 700,000 potential customers every day and was crucially dependent on footfall. The more people who passed through their doors, the more sales they made. Were they now to do or say something to dissuade people from even coming into the store, they would suffer a cash-flow blow from which they would never recover.

Now we had to ask the question – what would we rather they did? In the case of potential customers, the answer was once again very obvious – we wanted them to keep coming into the stores. Once there, of course, should they not be able to take home with them from the store an item that they had purchased, we would need to be entirely honest about the situation and offer discounts or other incentives to persuade them to endure the inconvenience. However, it was crucial that we did not allow the communications to run out of control so that this audience was negatively affected in ways that would damage the business for ever. This meant continuing to advertise, controlling fallout from the IT chaos, and stepping into overdrive on direct face-to-face communication with every audience the company had.

For example, with the salespeople, we obviously wanted them to continue to sell to clients. Should the disgruntled customer come in again, how should the sales staff handle her? The answer was to provide a customer liaison in every store who could deal directly with every unhappy customer returning to complain. A special process would need to be set up so that those customers could be taken away from the sales areas, comforted with a cup of tea and some biscuits, while the liaison officer did their best to sort out their problems.

Call-centre staff who were receiving the telephone complaints needed to be briefed on how to handle these complaints and how to keep disgruntled customers from cancelling their orders and going somewhere else. This involved giving them special scripts that allowed them to offer discounts or free items from the store to keep customers from leaving while they were sorting out the mess.

Every single stakeholder was addressed, and a huge and complex communication plan was put in place. Gradually, the crisis team was able to get on top of the IT chaos, and orders were fulfilled, discounts taken and free offers accepted. This crisis was dealt with without becoming national news, and without putting off new customers. The organization’s leaders were able to inspire their staff to the right behaviours in very challenging circumstances and overcome a crisis.

The lesson here was that the original communications objective would have been catastrophic. Communicating their problems widely would simply have dissuaded potential customers from coming to the stores. The new objective became: ensure that we can keep customers coming into our stores to buy furniture while we sort out the crisis. As you can see, by framing it this way, the leaders of the company were much more likely to ensure success through its communications programme.

Most importantly, however, the leadership team was able to provide much better leadership. They were able to provide context, they were able to show that they understood the problem as well as how all stakeholders felt and what they needed, and they were able to provide clear direction to everyone in the company about what they needed to do and how they could work together to solve the problem.

They succeeded because of a simple planning process that forced them to be more audience-centric before attempting to communicate.

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